Public broadcasting must meet balance test
Although a two-day conference may not sound interesting, it will deal with an issue that affects the community and the nation: how news is presented in public broadcasting.
The sessions, most of which will be public, will deal with CPB's response to its inspector-general's call for improvement in how the corporation upholds public broadcasting's objectivity and balance obligation.
CPB helps fund and, on behalf of Congress, oversee recipients such as National Public Radio and television's Public Broadcasting Service. They must meet the legal requirement of "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature."
A public opinion survey commissioned by CAMERA — the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America — indicated that one reason Americans hold public broadcasting in relatively high regard is that we think the government already ensures its objectivity and balance. But CPB has no substantive way to do this.
The corporation's annual "Open to the Public" report to Congress has been little more than a pass-through of NPR and PBS's laudatory self-examinations.
In 2005, partly in response to complaints such as those by CAMERA that NPR's chronic anti-Israel reporting violated the objectivity and balance statute, CPB created two ombudsmen positions.
The ombudsmen — in theory one "liberal," one "conservative" — are paid and assisted by CPB, but independent of it. They take complaints and issue opinions. But ombudsmen have no authority to punish or correct. Although they finally provide a specific address within CPB for citizen complaints, they (actually, he — one slot is vacant) do little to ensure recipient compliance with the objectivity and balance standard.
So, in board consideration of upgrading CPB's oversight, the ombudsmen have received virtually no mention. Instead, as Chairman Cheryl Halpern told a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee last March, the board has contacted deans from leading journalism schools about "the best ways to achieve CPB's objectivity and balance legislative mandate."
The next step may be "a colloquium of journalists, public broadcasters and other experts to address this issue." Halpern took over as chairman from the embattled Kenneth Tomlinson in 2005 and seems determined to improve CPB's transparency and accountability.
But discussions with journalism school deans and a colloquium with journalists, public broadcasters and other "experts" risks talking the objectivity and balance standard back into the closet. That's where it languished when the "Open to the Public" report amounted to the first and last word on the subject, and where the ombudsmen so far have left it.
Here's a better idea: strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature. It's the same one CAMERA proposed to the CPB board in 2004: Create a unit within CPB to conduct substantive reviews of serious complaints.
The unit would follow journalistic criteria such as those in the Society for Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics (at www.spj.org) and the Associated Press' "Statement of News Values and Principles." It would conduct post-broadcast reviews based on criteria including accuracy, objectivity, balance, comprehensiveness, context, fairness, proper attribution, avoidance of editorial opinions in news coverage, and speedy publication of corrections.
This new unit would report promptly and directly to the CPB president and board. They would consider its findings and include them in the corporation's annual report to Congress. The findings would be weighed when recipients found to have violated the objectivity and balance standards make future funding requests.
No one wants prior censorship of public broadcasting, which is illegal according to the same statutes that require programming objectivity and balance. But public broadcasting is a public trust, and just because stations or producers are non-profit does not mean they're entitled to taxpayers' money for partisan, biased purposes.
Getting the opinions of deans, reporters and broadcasters might be useful. But it's no substitute for rigorous reviews of substantive complaints.
When it comes to objectivity and balance oversight, it's time for CPB itself simply to carry out its own long-standing obligation.